For the Love of a Mother – Nhial’s Journey to South Sudan

By Erin Foster

Nhial Malia was resettled by IOM from a refugee camp in western Ethiopia to Houston, Texas when he was 11 years old. He is now 26, a US citizen, holds a BA in Biology and minor in Philosophy from Bethany College, Kansas and recently finished three years of service as a water and sanitation volunteer with the Peace Corps in Ghana. 

Charting a Course into the Unknown

“Even before I came to the end of my time at the Peace Corps in Ghana I knew I could not leave Africa without seeing my mother,” explained Nhial during a recent interview.

Nhial Malia left his mother Mary Nyayok Hoth and only surviving sibling, his brother Pout, 15 years ago when his uncle received an opportunity to resettle to the United States. With assistance from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Nhial and his uncle’s family relocated to Houston, Texas.  Through the generosity of community members, Nhial managed to thrive and gained not only his high school diploma, and a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Bethany College, but also a new family – his godmother Betsy and mom and dad, Jen and Dan.

After gaining US citizenship, Nhial decided to join the Peace Corps to give back what he felt was given to him by the American people. He says that his time spent in northern Ghana moved quickly and soon his two year commitment was up (in 2012). Even then he had the desire to find his mother and he had waited a long time for such a reunion. However, in the summer of 2012 bombings intensified near Bentiu, an area near the border of South Sudan and Sudan, and some rounds even hit the area where Mary lived. He made the decision to extend his time in Ghana for another year as he was afraid that if he returned home to Texas, it could be another 15 years before he had the opportunity to return to South Sudan and he could not bear leaving the continent without seeing his mother.

His hope stirred in early 2013 when, miraculously his mother – herself illiterate and poor – somehow managed to find Nhial’s phone number in Ghana and made a life changing call to him. It lasted only minutes but it was a gift. Sadly in April 2013, just four months from when he would make the journey to South Sudan, Nhial’s mother Mary passed away. After he received word of her death Nhial knew there was no other choice but to return. He had hoped to tell his mother about his life and what had happened and soon this dream trip changed dynamic to a trip of discovery.

When I asked how difficult it was to make the decision to return to South Sudan after learning about his mother, Nhial responded, “I never wanted to ask myself, 'what if?', 'what if I didn’t go?' – I have always lived my life without regrets.”

Although his friends and family in Houston were concerned for Nhial’s safety they knew he needed closure to make his life more meaningful and to give it direction.

Planning a trip to South Sudan is no small task. For Nhial, he was leaving directly from the end of his Peace Corps service in Ghana and there was no time for him to even reflect on that life-changing experience with such an important journey ahead. He sent a message to friends and family, including to IOM’s mission in Ghana, to let them know he was trying to find a way back to Bentiu to learn what happened to his mother and younger brother.

He approached the IOM Chief of Mission in Ghana for advice, and to try and learn more about what the situation was like on the ground in Bentiu. IOM quickly lent a hand, contacting its offices in Juba, South Sudan and through them Bentiu. A series of conference calls, emails and investigations by IOM staff concluded that it was possible for Nhial to travel to Bentiu – despite it being the rainy season (making roads virtually impassable).

Nhial would fly from Ghana to Ethiopia to South Sudan and arrive in Juba, where IOM staff would assist him in finding safe accommodation and forward air transport to Bentiu. Further, IOM advised him on the security situation on the ground and appropriate precautions for Nhial to take as a ‘foreigner’ in the country.

I asked Nhial what he felt as he planned his return ‘home’. He described a tsunami or hurricane of emotions that he couldn’t control and he anticipated a “direct hit” once he arrived. He had many questions about what he would find, what would happen if he got sick, how would he make sense of all his so-called relatives. Maybe he was making the biggest mistake of his life, but Nhial was certain it was important to learn more about where he came from and the type of person he was.

A Foreigner at Home

Arriving to Juba was a feeling of excitement and nerves for Nhial. At first glance, people thought he was Sudanese by the way he looked, but they soon realized the way he spoke was different. Nhial says he was relieved when he saw the IOM staff at the arrival area. Just meeting them and walking to the car gave him the confidence to move ahead. He arrived at his hotel and thought, “Ok this is not that bad, I can do this.”

However, after settling in and leaving the hotel perimeter for a look around, it was quickly apparent he was a stranger in this land that used to be home.

When he first arrived in Juba, Nhial did what most people do when they are in a new city, attempt to explore and find out how the local people live. He describes a bustling construction industry with many foreign-run enterprises. In walking around Juba, Nhial became lost in an area by the Nile River. He took in the surroundings of the water, alligators and the knowledge that this river flowed all the way to Egypt. His first thoughts were about how amazing the scenery was and how a beautiful resort could be built and the area could thrive from tourism.

Reflecting on his first few days in South Sudan he says there was no connection or spark that made him feel "at home" or triggered memories but felt it was a learning experience.

On the trip from Juba to Bentiu, Nhial was uncertain and tried to be in control of his emotions realizing that anything could happen for the remainder of the journey as he was getting closer to uncovering information about this mother. In Bentiu he was received by IOM staff and given an orientation to the area. During a trip to the market place he discovered a young girl bleeding with no one giving her any assistance. Upon asking her what happen she said she was beaten because of a clan issue. He thought to himself, “I can’t believe this is happening in the place I was born.” Suddenly it occurred to him that he was more American that he realized.

It was also in Bentiu that his first feelings of recognition came to him, not from interacting with particular people but the landscape and location. There were small grass areas near the airport in Bentiu that made him recall playing as a child and when walking to a relative’s house across a field it suddenly came back that he used to take care of cattle and goat in those grasses. This was unexpected to Nhial who had hoped to connect with his relatives, but this would not come naturally.

Fact Finding

After initial conversations with people in the community and being given conflicting information, Nhial had some hope that the email he received about his mother’s death was false. Suddenly sleep wouldn’t come as he felt the possibility of reconnecting with his mother could become a reality.

Nhial soon learned that half of the family members he encountered had no idea his mother had died. Speaking with these relatives angered him as they introduced themselves as aunts or uncles or cousins but the whole time he just wanted to yell, “Where were you when my mother was dying in the bush?” Not only did they not have any information but they then proceeded to asked for a gift or money.

He also faced challenges in communicating with his relatives. Everyone told Nhial he had been gone too long. He would start speaking in Nuer and suddenly become stuck in the middle of a sentence and would resort to English. They in turn had difficulty understanding his English, which they said was too fast.  

IOM provided advice and assistance to Nhial while he was in Bentiu that he says gave him a huge boost to his fact finding aims and personal security. He was warned of an on-going clan issue in the area where his mother’s family lived and they helped him to interview some people who claimed to be his relatives and invited him to their home. During the day he was on his own to explore and meet with people but Nhial says he always felt help was nearby if needed.

Nhial also contacted the Resettlement Agency to inquire for information about his mother and he mentioned his mother’s last name to the person in charge. It is a large clan and the man immediately said he knew someone who would be his mother’s sister. As they investigated further they found his grandfather still living in a remote village (3 days' walk from Bentiu).

The discovery of his grandfather caused his relatives to push for Nhial’s return to the village, so they could perform certain cultural rituals. They also wanted to take him to the village where his mother was born and married; however, this area is still too dangerous, located quite close to the border with Sudan. Part of him wanted to go on this journey but the other part of him knew the danger involved. In the end, Nhial decided it was not worth the risk on this journey.

Coming Full Circle

Unable to travel to his mother’s remote village, Nhial picked up his search in Bentiu at the police station, where they confirmed her death. This was devastating news. He went every day for a week to find out more information and to recover any belongings. Finally, he spoke with the Chief of Police and said, “Please where did you lay my mother to rest? Just take me to that area.” It was a hard and emotional step to take and caused a feeling of great anger and guilt within Nhial.

It was a desperate situation, she was buried without a blanket or clothing, she had died at 12pm but was not buried until 3pm, and they moved her so many times that they were not even sure of the exact location. The area was a swampland, not a cemetery or place worthy of his mother. Nhial stood there trying to take it all in, the last 15 years anticipating a reunion with his mother and confronted with her demise. “I asked the man to take a photo of me at that location so I would never forget.”

In that moment Nhial says he was “so angry at myself that I came too late, had I made a wrong decision somewhere?” There was only this overwhelming feeling of guilt that he was not a great son. As difficult as it was he needed to go through the grieving process. He reflected that the goals he had set for himself were to honour the love he had for his mother and to show that he was born to a woman of great character. But he thought, what is the price that has to be paid?

Some months ago when Nhial’s mother found him in Ghana – it was to tell him that her health was not good. Nhial sent her money for a three part medical treatment she needed for a growth on her neck. In fact the treatment was successful and she was on the way to visit a cousin to tell them she had found Nhial when she died in the bush alone, found by a stranger.

Why did this happen? He was reminded of advice, to look at the trip as a fact finding mission but that he might not get everything he wanted. There would be another journey for another purpose.

The Reunion

During discussions with various relatives Nhial finally learned that his younger brother Pout was alive and living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He was even able to see a picture of him and take his contact information. When they first spoke on the phone Nhial told his brother about his journey back to South Sudan and the search for information about their mother. He said he would be traveling through Addis Ababa on his way home to Texas and asked his brother to meet him there so they could reunite.

His brother hesitated at first, but Nhial ended the call by telling his brother to make it to Addis Ababa no matter what, he still had many unanswered questions. Finally, his brother made it to the Ethiopian capital. During this time Pout was able to tell Nhial more about their mother and fill in some of the 15 years' gap and questions he had. In the end, they spent two days catching up and talking about their childhood, youth and future plans.

Nhial recalls the encounter with his brother, as a much needed reunion between brothers but that he felt a distance because the decisions they have made so far in life are quite different. However, the new knowledge that his mother was proud of him and told everyone about her American son, meant the world to him.  

Before they parted the brothers agreed that in a years’ time they will reconnect.

A New Path

Finally, after finishing three years as a Peace Corps volunteer, returning to pay his respects and find out about his mother in South Sudan and reconnect with his brother in Ethiopia, Nhial was on his way ‘home’ to Houston, Texas. The reality of arriving back in the United States after such an emotional ride hit Nhial like a brick. Just buying a new cell phone and laptop proved a difficult task and he knew the process of adjusting back to life in America would take time.

Betsy commented on what it was like for herself, Dan and Jen through Nhial’s journey. They were only afraid of security issues but knew he needed closure. They were happy he had the opportunity to go although they understand it wasn’t as gratifying as he had hoped and all the information he gleaned might not have been what he had anticipated. “Nhial is ready for his next adventure now and we are here to support him.” On the night of his return the family stayed up talking about his journey and discussed all the possibilities that lay ahead for him.

For the moment Nhial is happy to be back with friends and his family in Houston and is taking time to process his life’s journey. His trip to South Sudan allowed him to come full circle and provided direction, while the Peace Corps allowed him to give back to others, now he is trying to learn from his experiences and start a new chapter. Namely, he hopes to find a job and get entry into an MBA programme. He is keen to continue his education but realizes that it is time to gain experience as a business professional to achieve his dream as an entrepreneur, and one day Africa’s most successful business investor.


Erin Foster is an Information and Communications Officer in IOM Ghana